jueves, 28 de enero de 2016

Poka-Yoke, an error-proof way of thinking and designing our classes
By Flor de María Vila

Beginning a new school year in Peru: We want to make the most out of it without “dying” in the attempt, don´t we? So, why not try a Poka-Yoke mentality to design classes and activities? Before going into the Poka-Yoke thinking, let’s explore a probable familiar situation.

What was our experience like last year?
Last year is gone, but some experiences remain in our memory. Are all of them good? Bad? What did we do that made those teaching-learning experiences successful? What did we do that made those experiences not as successful as we wanted them to be? Has it ever occurred to you that sometimes the “solutions” to those kinds of “problems” are there just in front of us, but we haven´t found the way to use or organize the information in the best way yet? Sometimes, there are inadvertent mistakes that do not allow us to use our resources well enough and that could be related to what we are focusing on: we might be looking at classes from the wrong perspective.

What do we take into account when we prepare our lessons?
We have heard a lot about the pre-existing knowledge with which students come. In fact, it is very likely that in our lesson plans and lessons, we have to consider eliciting students’ previous knowledge at the beginning. This is supported by the contemporary view that learning means that people construct their new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know and believe (1). According to Vygotsky (2), this is extremely important. He introduced the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)(2)(3), which is the gap between what a learner has already mastered and what s/he can achieve when educational support is provided. Regarding this: What do we know about our students´ ZDP? Do we really know how much knowledge, experience, skills, beliefs, and concepts our students come with? Even more, do we really know them?  How can I prepare a lesson if I do not know who my students are? Just think about this carefully: Would you be able to choose a gift for, let´s say, me without knowing my likes, preferences or anything that could give you a hint on how to select the right one? What details did you have in mind while choosing a gift for some relative or close friend last Christmas?  I am quite sure that you knew something important about that person in order to pick out that gift, didn’t you?
This might be one of the issues we are not considering and is preventing us from having incredible success? Thus, in order to use effectively this existing knowledge, experience, and so on, we must know as much as possible about our students. If we ignore this fact, the outcome may not be what we expect. Here´s what we must consider about our students and know when preparing our lessons: age, sex, cognitive level, learning style, language level, likes, preferences, social and economic background. Furthermore we need to know students’ expectations both from the course and from us as teachers. Then, we will be more prepared to give a lesson. We will be even more prepared to motivate them at the beginning of the class because our decisions will be based on facts and not just on assumptions.

Are we ready now to start working on a POKA-YOKE (4) teaching strategy?
Until now, we have just found out with whom we are going to work. Next step is to prepare the lesson. In order to make sure that there won’t be any unforeseen mistakes and that we are ready to overcome most possible problems, we need to consider the following aspects in the plan. Do you know what a poka-yoke teaching strategy is? This strategy is based on the poka-yoke mechanism, a mistake proofing approach that uses visual signals to make mistakes clearly stand out or become evident. For instance, you may have noticed that when you assemble a desktop computer, it is simply not possible to plug in the keyboard or mouse into the wrong holes of the CPU. That is because the designer used poka-yokes to help the user achieve his goal without possible mistakes. Likewise, teachers can use poka-yokes in their classes to help students achieve their learning goals without getting lost on the way. Thus, we need to make sure of having visual signals that let us identify the mistake, if any, easily. We also need to guarantee that all steps are followed. Regarding any lesson, we need to clearly identify the objective of the lesson; what we need the students to be able to do by the end of the class. Knowing the objective of the lesson may sound obvious, but you would be surprised to see how many teachers act in class as if “performing the activities” were the objective and not the means to achieve a superior learning objective.
Once we know this, we should determine the following based on the self-assessment sheet (5):
  1. Activity proposed and its objective
  2. Resources used
  3. Did the activity help you to achieve its objective? Did it work?
  4. What evidence (visual signal) do we have that it worked?
  5. What should I do to improve this result for the following class?
In addition to this, we should think of the possible problems that may arise.

The poka-yoke teaching strategy implies having the minimum elements to work with a very high probability that the results we expect will become true.
Definitely, there are other factors that affect learning. Even though they are important, they are not more important than students and teachers themselves.

If you liked this reflection on how to make classes inevitably successful, please choose any of the following questions and share your thoughts.
  1. The article gives the example of poka-yokes used in a computer. You can also find a poka-yoke when a computer program double checks with you if you are sure you want to delete a file, thus helping you avoid the possibility that you delete it accidentally. Can you give other examples from everyday life where you find poka-yokes (a design thought to help avoid mistakes)?
  2. In trying to make an activity work like a poka-yoke for students to fulfill a learning objective, which of the following factors is in your experience the most important? Why?
a.       The lesson plan
b.      The teacher’s motivation
c.       The classroom environment
d.      The appeal of the activity to students’ interests
e.      The objective of the activity
  1. Can you suggest other factors, ideas or strategies that can contribute to an inevitable attainment of learning goals in class (just as a poka-yoke does)?
(1)    How people learn (2000) edited by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking.
(2)    Lev Vygotsky- biography
(3)    ZPD definition
(4)    POKA-YOKE definition

Flor de María Vila. M.A. in Cognition, Learning and Development from PUCP, B.A. in Education with a major in English Teaching. Ms. Vila is currently Pedagogic Advisor and Member of the Research Team at Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacífico. She is Academic Director of International Contacts (test training & foreign applications advisory) and Relationship Associate Manager for American universities´ MBA admissions officers with International Contacts. She is official Examiner for several University of Cambridge tests, former freelance consultant with Universidad ESAN, experienced speaker on diverse English teaching issues for prestigious institutions, and senior international examinations trainer (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, IELTS)